Catch of the day

April 25, 2011

On College Street, down the hill from my office, there’s a row of stately brick townhouses where every now and then one of the residents will put out a cardboard box of free books. They’re generally old titles, musty smelling, often quaint, like Dickey Downy: The Autobiography of a Bird, which, in fact, was one of the books that my daughter Grace snagged out of the box on her way up to campus today.

I immediately coveted Dickey Downy. Fortunately, I was on my way downtown when Grace showed me her find and clued me in that today was a free book box day on College Street. I headed down the hill and soon found my own reward:

For the Honor of the School: A Story of School Life and Interscholastic Sport by Ralph Henry Barbour, copyright 1900. (Some of you might be familiar with Barbour’s other works such as On Your Mark, The Arrival of Jimpson, The Half-Back, or Weatherby’s Inning.)

Now that I crack it open at home, Chapter 1, “The Cross-Country Race,” shows promise. Here’s a look at where the story begins, and it’s my intention to keep you posted now and then as Barbour spins his tale:

“This way, Hilton!”

In response ten boys dressed in white shirts bearing the crimson H, white running pants, and spiked shoes disentangled themselves from the crowd about the dressing-room door and assembled at the corner of the grand stand. The youth who had uttered the command was the captain of the Hilton Academy Cross-country Team, and, with the runners clustered close about him, he gave his last instructions before the race in low and earnest tones:

“Fellows, we must win this, you know. It’s going to be hard work; House and Beaming, of St. Eustace, are difficult men to beat, but I think we can do it. Northrop and I will try to attend to them. The rest of you must try your best for the next places. I don’t believe there is a dangerous runner in Shrewsburg’s team; at all events, there aren’t four. If they get less than four in ahead of us it won’t matter. Save yourselves for the last three quarters of a mile, and don’t try to leap the ‘combination jump’ or the ‘Liverpool’; get over by the side railings or run up the braces, as you’ve done in practice. It’s not style over the obstacles that’s going to win this race, but good hard running and lots of wind at the end. Keep your strength till you need it most. Don’t try to get ahead at the start; let the other fellow make the pace. And right now, while I think of it, do try not to take off too soon at the water jump. Moore, you try to remember about that, will you? And be sure before you start that your shoes are all right; it’s mighty tough work running with a scraped heel, I can tell you. That’s all; only keep yourselves moving, fellows, until the line-up.”

In summary, take away points for runners:

1. You’ll need lots of wind at the end.

2. Don’t take off too soon at the water jump.

3. Moore is something of a fuck-up.

4. It’s mighty tough work running with a scraped heel.

Stay tuned.

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The power of surrender

April 24, 2011

Since last Monday, I’ve been thinking about the many amazing performances at this year’s Boston Marathon. In particular, Geoffrey Mutai and Ryan Hall. I wrote a post about Hall after last year’s Boston race, sharing some thoughts about the role his faith plays in his training and racing. Mutai was equally up front about the guy upstairs after his race in 2011 — attributing his world record performance (I think it’s a world record, and god probably does, too) to the big man’s will, not his own.

I don’t share the same kind of Christian faith, speed, or endurance with either of these guys. But, in some sense, I think I know what they’re talking about. My best efforts always come through a sort of surrender. It’s counterintuitive to the usual notions of pushing oneself. Rather, when it works for me, it’s like a letting go, a leap of faith, a single decision to fully give myself to an effort, then the race follows from there and it feels like something outside of me or so deep inside me that it’s beyond my control is running the show.

I think Mutai and Hall are essentially talking about the same thing, when they talk about god acting through them in the course of a race.

Ryan Hall heads under Massachusetts Ave near the end of the 2010 Boston Marathon.

The legs above

April 17, 2011

After a friend expressed dismay (would horror be too strong a word, Amy?) at that portrait of the blogger’s legs as an oldish man, I thought a word might be in order. This is what a runner’s legs look like after a workout on a cinder track on a summer day. More precisely, that’s what this runner’s legs looked like one day last summer in Vancouver. Sheila had a conference in that beautiful city, and I selflessly accompanied her, spending my days exploring neighborhoods, running, and recovering in air-conditioned comfort looking out the hotel window.

Note: This photo, currently under discussion, was formerly displayed as the heading of this blog.

One of the glories of Google maps is the ease with which you can hover over unfamiliar territory and find the familiar shape of a track. Before the trip, I’d scoped out that Stanley Park had a promising site called “The Brockton Oval.” It didn’t disappoint. Brockton, which dates back to 1891, is ringed by hedges, has a small grandstand, and views of the water and the dramatic North Shore mountains. I had it to myself one afternoon.

I love a cinder track. Nearly all of the track meets of my junior high and high school years in the 1970s were on them; so that humble surface, and certain songs by the Commodores, take me back to my first days in running. But they also hearken back to an earlier era of track and field that I only know through photographs—the greats like Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek, Roger Bannister’s first sub-four. Adding to this sense of the past, cinder tracks these days invariably have the neglected feel of a ruin, the grass from the infield creeping into lane one.

“Thinclads Make the Cinders Fly” was the headline on the track and field page in my mother’s high school yearbook. The line has remained lodged in my memory for some reason. Maybe it’s because my mom might have written it as one of the yearbook’s editors, so it’s tangled up in my DNA. Maybe it’s the appeal of that old-timey word “thinclads.” But I think it’s also that cinematic image of cinders flying. It’s among the things I love about a cinder track—the slight slip on the push off, the spikes grabbing hold. More to love: the smell that comes up off the dust on a July afternoon, the black splattered across your back after a race in an April downpour.

Workout or race, no matter the day, you always take some of a cinder track with you. Which brings us back to the legs above, that slash of black where my shoe grazes my inner calf is the fingerprint of my stride. After a few sets of quarters—the closest a running workout comes to pounding rocks with a sledge hammer—it’s right to return home with a trace of coalminer’s grime.

Sampling the fineness of the cinder grind at the Brockton Oval.

Tough guy

April 12, 2011

Irishman, boxer, steel mill worker, builder of roads in the Grand Tetons with the Civilian Conservation Corps, U.S. Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II, Chicago beat cop, sheet-metal man/HVAC contractor, father of seven. He was not, to my knowledge, a “Hog Butcher,” “Tool Maker” nor “Stacker of Wheat,” but in most other ways my father-in-law’s life echoed that opening litany in Carl Sandburg’s famed Chicago poem —”Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.”

As a tough guy, Sheila’s dad was a dream from central casting. He looked like a 1940s movie star, blue-eyed and square-jawed. In our home we have an old photo of him as a young man. He stands proudly by his pick-up truck, “M. O’Leary Metal and Heating” stenciled on the door. He wears the baggy, high-waisted, pleated pants of the era; he is shirtless, arms folded; his biceps and pecs are formidable—made by work, not weights. (Yes, it feels a little strange when friends swoon at a picture of Grandpa O’Leary.)

He aged well or, seemingly, not at all. He was in his mid-seventies when we were at a playground with the kids, Grandpa (whom we secretly called GangstaPa in his later years) grabbed a bar on the jungle gym and snapped off ten good pull-ups. He worked well into his eighties—up and down basement stairs, hoisting heavy AC units, crafting metal into duct work in his garage shop. Prostate cancer finally slowed him in the end. He died last week at age 90, home and in his own bed, the way we all should be so lucky to go.

It’s easy to imagine that Martin Gerald O’Leary might have been a daunting father-in-law, an impossible standard of Celtic manliness for a skinny college boy of Anglo-extraction such as, uh, myself. Yet, beyond some initial, understandable doubts that a pair of 23-year-old graduate students living off of teaching assistantship stipends had any business getting married (perhaps underpinned with the suspicion that an English major would ultimately never get paid anything for doing anything), the man showed me nothing but acceptance. Inherently tough as he was, Sheila’s dad didn’t put off an alpha vibe. The shirtless photos from back in the day suggest an attitude that might have once been there, but he was more about sweetness and humor when I knew him. The genuine article needs no bluster.

Still, beyond the fact that we both loved his youngest daughter, there wasn’t a whole lot we shared in common. This, of course, is why god created televised sports. I was always happy and relieved to have a Cubs or White Sox or Bears game on the TV as distraction, intermediary, conversation piece during visits.

On a deeper level, running was another sort of bond if an unspoken one. If Martin O’Leary had been from a different time or place, one in which he didn’t get all the exercise he needed from the long days of work that provided for his family, he would have been a fine runner or cyclist or swimmer or triathlete, just like many of his kids and grandkids have proven to be. He had that mental toughness and it would seem he shared some genes with the great Irish milers. He understood the need to run.

Among his childhood tales, there’s one that goes like this. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, there was a tempting shortcut that crossed the forbidden railyards. When he was late for school, as he often was, young Marty would take off in a sprint across the tracks. At first, the railroad cops would give chase. Eventually, as the story has it, they would look at him receding into the distance, shrug, and say: “It’s O’Leary. Just let him go, you’ll never catch him.”